In early March 2018, at least 16 people, including eight gunmen, were killed and 80 others wounded in coordinated attacks on the French embassy and army headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. These attacks, which followed two major assaults on the city in the past two years, were unprecedented in terms of their coordination, deadliness and intensity.
The fact that two key symbols of force and authority in the city—diplomacy and the military—were targeted on a day slated for a meeting of the French-led G5 Sahel regional counter-terrorism force points to the perpetrators’ level of sophistication. What is more, the choice of targets highlights that there is a serious extremist threat not only to Burkina Faso but across the Sahel.
A day after the attacks, the extremist group Jama’a Nasr al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen (also known as Nusrat al-Islam), which means ‘Group to Aid Islam and Muslims’, claimed responsibility for the assault, saying it was a response to the killing a fortnight earlier of one of its leaders, Mohamed Hacen al-Ancari, in a French-led raid. Though rooted in local religious and socio-political circumstances, this group’s ideology and modus operandi reflect the global jihadi movement. Understanding these dynamics and nuances will help policymakers to deal with this scourge more holistically.
Formed in March 2017, Nusrat al-Islam is an amalgam of four extremist groups operating across the Sahel. The merger consists of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and the Saharan branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Ansar Dine is an Arabic phrase meaning ‘Helpers of the Faith’. This group was formed in 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a former Malian diplomat, hostage negotiator and prominent Tuareg rebel. The group aimed to establish its version of sharia law across Mali and drew members mainly from the Ifora tribe in northern Mali. It came to prominence for its involvement in the 2012 Malian coup and continued to be active after that.
The Macina Liberation Front was a jihadi group that operated in central Mali from 2015. Led by Amadou Kouffa, this group became prominent for destroying a mausoleum that had been a proposed UN World Heritage site, targeting Malian and French troops and UN peacekeepers, and persecuting locals. Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 that the movement had committed serious abuses of human rights.
Al-Mourabitoun, which means ‘The Sentinels’, was the product of a union in 2013 of al-Mulathamun Battalion and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The group’s leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan and was an al-Qaeda commander. The one-eyed man, who has been active in jihadi violence for about three decades, is nicknamed ‘Mr Marlboro’ by locals for his role in smuggling cigarettes, the proceeds of which he uses to fund his campaign of terror and violence. Al-Mourabitoun recruited from both North and West Africa, particularly Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and committed violent acts in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali. It kidnapped diplomats and aid workers and conducted at least 11 bombings against African and European soldiers and civilians.
Based in the Sahara and the Sahel, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has its roots in the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s. The group later became an al-Qaeda affiliate with the object of establishing Islamic government and law in place of secular authority and ridding North Africa of Western, particularly French, influence. The group’s mission later expanded to West Africa, and a Saharan branch was formed. It claimed joint responsibility for a November 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali, in which 100 people were taken hostage and 22 were killed. In January 2016, the group killed at least 29 people in Ouagadougou after storming the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel, popular with foreigners.
On 2 March 2017, leaders of these groups appeared in a video and announced their fusion as Nusrat al-Islam. They praised the killed al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. On 18 March, al-Qaeda released a statement welcoming the coalition and accepting its oath of allegiance.
Nusrat al-Islam’s ideology is very much aligned with the global Salafi-jihadi tradition of dividing the world into two diametrically opposed categories, each fighting the other until one is subdued. This tradition claims to fight to unite Muslims from North and West Africa, rid the region of secular governments, and install puritan Islamic governments in their place. Thus, Nusrat al-Islam’s ideology blends with that of al-Qaeda, with locally resonant elements.
The militias that formed Nusrat al-Islam were products of their local circumstances and grievances. Those grievances—perceived or genuine—include economic and socio-political marginalisation, French or Western hegemony, secularisation of Muslim lands, and ineffective governance. Such grievances, especially if seen as systemic, allow recruiters to present Salafi-jihadi ideology as an alternative solution that maximises anti-secular sentiments and increases vulnerabilities to radicalisation in the region.
Since its creation, Nusrat al-Islam has adopted the tactics of other global extremist groups that claim to fight for Islam and Muslims: suicide bombings, kidnappings for ransom, arms and drug trafficking, and indiscriminate killings. Nusrat al-Islam has launched dozens of assaults on UN peacekeepers, local and foreign troops, and civilians in Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali. The group claimed several attacks across Mali in the first month of its formation.
Malian and foreign troops have been battling the groups that came together to form Nusrat al-Islam for over half a decade. International efforts include the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), established in April 2013, and the G5 Sahel, a counter-terrorism force backed by France, whose Operation Serval was active in Mali in 2013.
While peacekeeping missions and troops continue to play their part in the war against violent groups in the Sahel, it is essential that a regional plan addresses the scourge holistically. Policymakers must tackle the underlying conditions that provide violent groups with a fertile space to thrive—such as ignorance, poverty, unemployment, ineffective governance, access to weapons, deep-seated ethno-religious tensions and marginalisation—if extremist groups are to be fully defeated.